North Star Contracting Inc. Shares Shining Opportunities
Steven Skiba, president of North Star Contracting Inc., Calgary, Alberta, has had an interest in the construction industry since he was in third grade. Skiba would go to job sites with his dad, a small residential contractor in Grande Prairie, Alberta, performing mostly residential dirt work and sewer system installation.
“At first I was only a bystander,” he said, “but it wasn’t long before I was helping install sewer lines for $3 an hour.”
When Skiba moved to Calgary, it was an easy choice to begin working in the construction industry. It wasn’t long before his dad inspired him in a different way.
In 1998, Skiba started North Star with one skid steer he purchased from his father for $10,000 and began offering sewer system installation in Calgary. Year by year, Skiba grew the business.
“I did everything myself until the company was making $10 million annually,” he said, without any formal business management training. “I’m sure I made a lot of mistakes and I paid for them, but that’s what learning is.”
Perhaps that’s why, when market forces pushed North Star into asphalt paving in 2008, Skiba didn’t shy away from the new challenge.
The paving companies North Star had long relied on were getting bought out by larger companies. “We either had to find new subcontractors or start paving ourselves,” Skiba said. That market consolidation also meant North Star would likely need to offer asphalt paving to remain competitive.
“I bought a small paver and away we went,” Skiba said.
Skiba hired a few experienced asphalt paving professionals, and learned how to estimate on the fly. “Operationally, they knew the ins and outs of asphalt, so I just had to learn my end of it,” he said. “Plus, we already had the contract to pave for the city of Calgary on the books, so I just had to fill out our plate from there.”
North Star began implementing HaulHub last year. “We definitely see a huge benefit from having a better understanding of our haul times and where our trucks are,” Wiens said. In 2021, they demoed it on only a few trucks, but expanded it to the company’s entire fleet in 2022. “Being able to better understand our haul times, how long trucks are at the paver and at the plant, helps us understand our costs and be more accurate with our estimates.”
Calgary, an Inland Port
The city of Calgary has awarded one of its asphalt rehabilitation contracts to North Star nearly every year since the company began paving. To this day, a large percentage of the company’s work is still for the city of Calgary, said Senior Project Manager Jacob Wiens.
“We do some mill-and-fills for Calgary every year ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 tons,” Wiens said. City work, residential subdivisions and warehouses are the company’s three main types of paving work, though they also do some multi-family and industrial paving.
“Vancouver is an expensive city, and land is scarce,” Skiba said. “Big companies offload containers in Vancouver and ship them to Calgary for warehousing and distribution.”
Wiens estimates the company paves five or six warehouses each year. “Those warehouse jobs are great jobs with a lot of asphalt tonnage,” he said.
“Warehouses are usually triple the thickness of asphalt you’d see on a normal residential road to account for the additional weight of hundreds of tractor trailers on it every day,” Skiba said, usually 8 to 10 inches (200 to 250 millimeters) of asphalt on top of 20 to 24 inches (500 to 600 mm) of aggregate base course.
Calgary is also Canada’s third-fastest growing city, according to Statistics Canada. “It’s becoming a more in-demand place to live,” Wiens said. Not only is it an hour away from good skiing and hiking opportunities in the Rocky Mountains, he said, but it’s also “still an affordable city compared to Toronto or Vancouver.”
North Star’s paving crew uses a Cat AP1055 paver for big jobs and a Cat 655 for smaller jobs. They also have a small Bomag 815 pathway paver.
North Star Loves Asphalt
In 2021, North Star laid more than 70,000 tons of asphalt. Although work across its services is fairly even, Skiba said the company’s concrete and asphalt paving operations have really grown in recent years.
“In a few short years, we went from paving what we used to do in one year on a single job,” Wiens said, adding that the company has expanded from 200-ton jobs to 50,000-ton jobs. He attributes a lot of the growth to North Star’s talented paving crew and the quality of their work. “Quality workmanship can only come from people that truly care and love what they do, and our clients can see that.” The company is particularly proud of a recent 50,000-ton warehouse job for one of its clients.
Wiens said the main challenge with warehouse paving is scheduling. “Those warehouses usually need to open on a tight timeline,” he said, estimating liquidated damages of $1,500 to $7,500 per day for finishing late. “Being able to do every facet of that construction gives us a leg up on those jobs, since we can be more efficient than we’d be if we had four or five subcontractors we’re also trying to schedule with. Scheduling is everything.”
Wiens has been working for North Star for eight years and says what he enjoys most about working for the company is the breadth of its services. “Not only does it give us a leg up on our competition, but it gives us more opportunities to learn new skills in the construction industry.”
Like Skiba, Wiens also grew up around the construction industry. “We both developed our love for this industry watching our dads and the work ethic and passion they brought to their work,” he said. “For people who love it, working in construction is an amazing career.”
Wiens worked on a paving crew when he was younger and learned to love that, too. For him, the best part is seeing the final product. “You’re the last guy on the site to make that job look good.”
Skiba seconded that opinion: “One thing I love about asphalt is that when you’re doing underground services, you don’t see the finished product of what you’ve done. With asphalt, you can see your hard work. It’s a source of pride.”
In the future, North Star hopes to further expand its asphalt services. “At some point, we’ll probably look into getting our own asphalt plant,” Skiba said. “We’re always on the lookout for new opportunities.”
Spread the Love
During the construction season, which usually lasts from May until November in Calgary, North Star employs up to 200 people on its asphalt paving crew, patch crew, two concrete crews, five grading crews, five underground crews, and several miscellaneous crews.
To attract the next generation of asphalt professionals, one strategy the company has employed is social media. “For potential workers, we hope to show them the exciting side of construction and that it can be an amazing career path,” Wiens said. “It’s also good for our team because it gives them a chance to showcase the amazing work that they do.. It’s nice to be able to go onto our Instagram and show their family what they worked on today.”
The company has also recently begun recruiting area high schools and universities, participating in lunch-and-learns, Zoom meetings, and, most recently, an Industry Night for a local university’s construction management department.
“We were surprised to hear the students saying that they were interested in working in our field, but didn’t know how to get into our industry,” Wiens said. “We need to show them all the different avenues they can take and how we got to where we are and we want to give them a chance to join us in the summer to learn what construction is all about.”
“Where I’m from, there aren’t many jobs, and very few that pay this well (and even pay for schooling),” Wiens said. “We were both lucky enough to grow up aware of these opportunities. We want to give the opportunity we had to the next generation.”